Optimism Is the Engine That Moves Society Forward

Skepticism has a place, but it's optimists who decide the future, says Kevin Kelly.

Kevin Kelly: So, my optimism is rooted in the fact that for almost over 200 years every year has gotten a little bit better when we look at the scientific evidence. And while it's possible that next year everything could change, that everything could collapse and fall to the ground, statistically, probabilistically it won't it will continue because 200 years has gone and next year it probably will continue. 

But if you look at the kind of current political regime around the world and the factors of pressures, environmental pressures, the pressures of distraction that we have from the new media, then I think you have to resort to hope.

In the long term, optimists decide the future. It’s the optimists who create all the things that are going to be most important in our lives, because it was optimists who built and invented all the things that are now important in our current lives. And I think people behave better when they’re optimistic. There’s absolutely a need to be critical and doubtful and skeptical and even pessimistic. Just like if you have a car you have to have brakes. You can’t have a car, no matter where it is, without brakes. But it’s the engine, the optimistic engine that keeps going and going and refuses to stop and is only concerned about going forward that really drives a car. But you certainly need brakes to steer it. And I think if you have only brakes you don’t go anywhere.

And I think what we have right now is we have an imbalance between pessimism and optimism, and we really need a lot more optimism about the future in order to have the engine keep going. 

And I think that one of the reasons why we maybe have an imbalance right now is because we have been burned so often by the promises of the optimists about how technology is going to bring us a kind of utopia. And I think nobody believes in utopia anymore. I certainly don’t. But dystopia is actually not any better, and that’s actually the only vision that we have of the future, which is really sort of made by Hollywood in some science fiction, which is of a dystopia that collapses. 

And I think that while we can’t believe in a utopia I think a better vision of the future is protopia, this idea that we have incremental progress that we’re working and creeping, very, very steadily but slowly, towards betterment. So every year is a little tiny better than the year before. Not much, but a little tiny better. And that kind of incremental progress is really only visible when you turn around and look back behind you. 

Half or even a one percent difference is really something we can’t see every year. And it’s not going to be seen in the news. If you look at the news, the news is about outliers. It’s about unusual things. It’s not about the slow evidence of progress which is not seen in the news.

So if you want to see what’s really happening in the world you can’t look at the news. You have to look at the scientific evidence, which is going to register a very small delta that is really not visible unless you turn around and look behind you. And then you can see, “Oh, 20 years. This is real.” 

And so that sense of protopia, of a small incremental creep towards betterment that next year will be a little tiny better than this year is really the best that we have. But it’s a very powerful thing because that’s what civilization is. Civilization is not monumental heroic enterprise. It’s the small creep of one percent betterment through centuries. 

And I think if we believe that progress is real then we can actually behave better. If we believe that progress is real we can still dream about making these new things, because we know that even though the new technologies are going to introduce as many new problems as they solve and that most of the problems we will have in the future will come from new technology, we’ll still go forward and make and invent those new things—even though they will create new problems. Because those new problems themselves will birth new solutions, which will have new problems. 

But that circle and cycle keeps going around and around and there’s a one percent net gain for each revolution. And that’s what we get out of this.


The news certainly doesn't portray it this way, but every year the world becomes a better place, says Kevin Kelly. There is currently an imbalance in our optimism and pessimism levels, because we feel that things are catastrophic, despite most scientific evidence pointing the other direction. In this inspiring stream of thought, Kelly reminds us that society is constantly making progress, and that innovation is the direct result of optimism. Civilization is not a sweeping, heroic enterprise, he says, it’s a constant creep forward, and you only have to look behind you to see how far we've come.

This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Kevin Kelly's most recent book is The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

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